Helleborines are a group of plants within the Orchid family. Most belong to the genus Epipactis but we also include images of another beautiful species which is popularly known as ‘Helleborine’ but belongs to a separate genus called Cephalanthera In this article we are pleased to bring together images of all the Helleborines found in Ireland. Several of these plants are very rare and we have been privileged to get to know them both through hard toil and from the  work of others passed on willingly. So some locations have to be vague but we always welcome enquiries about this and any other topic on WildWest.ie

Taxa Records, Images and Observations…

(Trio) No. 1, June 7th 2018

TAXA: The word comes from Taxonomy, the science of natural classification. A Taxon is a group of plants (for example) that may belong to a particular genus, that may be subspecies, that may be genetically the same but have acquired distinct identities as species or families or some other rank. The subspecies rank is particularly difficult; using the term ‘taxa’ in the plural form we can conveniently list species that are related in some ways but avoid some of the debates as to how!

The Irish Helleborines:

Firstly, they are much scarcer than in Britain and two of the species found in Ireland are now very rare. One of these belongs to the genus Cephalanthera and the rest are in the genus Epipactis. The taxonomy of the group is shown in the Table on the RIGHT… Marsh Helleborine (Epipactis palustris). This is the commonest Helleborine always occurring close to water but in a variety of such habitats. It can be a very big plant growing and flowering out of water or else in marshes or rocky areas bordering lakes or ponds which may since have dried up. In good damp conditions it can grow up to 60 cms and always appears in good numbers. All Helleborines are opportunists and prolific seed producers so they can easily repopulate an area over winter if the right seed bed is available — even as little as a car track where there is bare mud or soil and water available. These are abundant in the right conditions. The specimens above were from the edges of Lough Talt in Co. Sligo. Also prominent in sandy areas where winter pools dry out in the Spring, like Bull Island in Dublin and Strandhill in Sligo. They can be a stunningly beautiful plant in full flower and in good condition. (LEFT)
Dark Red Helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens) (RIGHT) Another glorious plant but this one is confined to the Karst landscape of the west of Ireland. The specimen shown is from The Burren where they can be seen in good numbers. But these plants flower later than much of The Burren flora so seek out stunning dark red spires alongside the road in July or August. These plants can be first spotted much earlier in the year when their lush twisted leaves force their way up from a gap in the limestone or along road verges. Very obvious vigourous young plants but seeing them at this stage means you may not be around to view their spectacular flowers later in the year. Widespread around NW Clare they don’t form dense colonies but occur as individual stalks spread over a wide area where the landscape suits them. LEFT Freshly emerging specimen among rocks and grykes on the south shore of Lough Bunny, Co. Clare. A conspicuous plant, it has been seen in succeeding years in the one spot but it has been the only Dark Red Helleborine observed in the area.  Another popular habitat is on the borders of lanes or small roads twisting through The Burren where, presumably, it finds its needs for bare soil and moisture sufficient to allow new plants to germinate. The full flowering spikes of this Helleborine can be a spectacular sight on a hilly bare patch of limestone and looking beyond to hilly green fields. The Helleborine group does have some of Ireland’s most spectacular and rare plants. This is the certainly one of them. (RIGHT) The location of this site in north Clare, near to Ailwee caves, is one of the prime locations in the country and, at the height of the flowering season, specimens can often be see on road verges and up against stone walls…. well worth looking out for! MORPHOLOGY: Certain features of plant and flower are important in separating helleborines. The Close-up (BELOW) and the main picture show many of the features of this species. For example, the stem is densely covered with white hairs. The leaves are thin and longer than wide. The perianth (both sepals and petals) are uniformly dark red/purple. (More purplish if photographed in bright sunshine!) The ovary in this species is also hairy and these flowers are open to fertilisation from the start. Bracts are thin and slightly longer than flowers.


This is a hardy species present in Europe from the Mediterranean to the Sub- Arctic. It can be found high up but uniformly favours base soils or substrates. Its preferred habitat is away from trees on open exposed rock or stony hillsides. It is a rare plant in northern countries such as Finland and is becoming quite rare in Scotland, as it is in Ireland, being reduced there, as here, to certain exposed limestone habitats. Like the Broad-leaved Helleborine (BELOW) it produces abundant seed in Ireland. Its occurrence here probably relies on keeping its habitat intact. There is much removal of karst in The Burren now; but remote areas must remain! Also, avoidance of spraying rural road verges (which it is now adopting) and balanc- ing the need for a nature- rich countryside, are vital to its retention in our Flora.

The larger/greener Helleborines.

Below we reproduce images of two of our larger ‘green’ Helleborines. There are certain similarities between the two species which is made the harder to resolve by the scarcity and the impoverished nature of most of the Green-Flowered Helleborines seen in Ireland. It has been a plant very limited to occurrences of small numbers of weak specimens in north west counties and around Dublin. This probably leads to this species being under- recorded. However, with familiarity, the plants are strikingly different.
Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) Images BELOW A fairly common, somewhat ‘weedy’ and opportunistic plant, this species is found throughout Ireland and we know good populations from Roscommon, Sligo and Mayo. This can be a spectacular plant which will grow tall and produce a huge supply of seeds which can sprinkle the air like gold dust on a hot Autumn day with gentle breezes. It is amazing to see such fertility in a plant when another orchid species we know struggles even to produce seed here in Ireland. But then, of course, Spiranthes romanzoffiana (of which we speak) is a native to North American climes, whereas Broad-leaved Helleborine is a European native. It was interesting to notice a clump of newly emerged E, helleborine in a car made puddle barely metres away from where an established helleborine was releasing its seed abundantly in Lough Key Forest Park (Co. Roscommon) last Autumn. But this is a vigourous plant, it is widespread in the wood and can grow up to 60 cm. in favourable conditions. It is a case of an available source of seed meeting a suitable mild wet environment as opposed to a remote source of seed (N. America) struggling to re-stock an isolated population of the rare Irish orchid, Irish Lady’s Tresses! More to the point, why does this species reproduce with ease in Ireland whereas its genetically similar ‘cousin’ struggles both to establish new colonies and to grow strong and healthy plants in most parts of the country?
Green-flowered Helleborine (Epipactis phyllanthes) Images BELOW This is a very rare plant in Ireland with colonies known from Leitrim, Monaghan, Fermanagh. However a spectacular large colony was discovered outside Dublin in 2016 and we were delighted to be able to photograph and record that unusual and spectacular occurrence. The plants were all on private land so no further detailed information on location for the moment. There is something very exotic about this plant with its tangle of greenery often making large flowers hard to decipher. In its former known haunts plants rarely (in recent years) topped 40cms. in height. They also looked miserable and colonies we know were limited to small numbers of individuals. So why did 411 specimens suddenly appear in a few hectares west of Dublin and produce one of the most spectacular displays of native flora one could expect to see?  Why so special..? It has to be the rarity effect. But also the plants were spectacular and deemed to be so by all who saw them. These were full grown Green-flowered Helleborines, not struggling miniature plants as seen elsewhere. Like the Broad-leaved they grow in woodlands and germinate in mud. But whereas the former are happy to disperse seed by wind, there seems to be a close association between Green-flowered plants and water transportation. They grow on banks of rivers, or in hollows where water evidently lay during the Winter. Old river courses and channels are perfect. They grow mainly in Beech woods and this is the same habitat as the Broad-leaves described opposite — but that species is not so associated with water?

Green-Flowered v Broad-leaved

Here we list some standard guidelines used to tell these closely related species apart. Firstly there is no point in studying DNA as samples are rare and differences are minuscule. Definition of species comes from morphology. These species have traits that seem to be permanent and repeatable from generation to generation. Perhaps this is controlled by and epigenetic event..? The most striking visual clue is the colour of the plants. The flowers in one are really green from the ovary right through to the petals. The whole plant has an attractive uniform dense green colouration whereas the Broad- leaved Helleborine, at a similar level of maturity, has a clearly brown demeanour with shades of brown and pink on the petals and sepals — a much more piebald appearance. ALSO, the Green-flowered flowers droop much more towards the ground and are not held up open for insects to fertilise. We believe that many of the flowers of this species are indeed fertilised before the flowers open as ‘fat ovaries’ can be seen from an early stage. These plants are thought to be self-fertilising or cleistogamous (flowers not opening until after fertilisation has taken place). We have also not seen seed being released from the Green- flowered Helleborines as was witnessed with the Broad- leaved? In fact the outside of the ovary seems plugged with an amorphous mass. Perhaps release of seeds takes place later and this could influence the breeding success of this plant.

Specific Morphological characteristics.

Dealing with the Green-flowered Helleborine in particular, the stem and the ovaries are glabrous (devoid of hairs). This is best seen in the lower picture on the left. Leaves: Leaves are narrower and more strongly veined. More significantly, and strangely surprising, is a characteristic of the leaf edges. This is a parameter advanced by a renowned British botanist and it does seem to be consistent among the Green-flowered Helleborines. We have examined many in great detail and they all have a wavy pattern of cilia not found on Broad-leaved! Leaf margin of a Green-flowered Helleborine…

The open flowers of Green-flowered and Broad-leaved Helleborines:

The two pictures reproduced below show difference in shape of the flower anatomy of both these species. However it is still mainly the colouration that stands out with the Green-flowered having a consistent greenish tinge whereas the Broad-leaved has a more contrasting brown and cream sheen to the outer parts of the flower. This is better seen, perhaps, in the upper picture (RIGHT) rather than the lower one. However it is the shape and structure of upper and lower parts of the labellum that is interesting. The image (Bottom Right) shows a very clear consistent shape to the upper part of the labellum. It is a chalice shaped brown pattern consistent with images we have seen of this Helleborine in the literature. However the other picture (Below LEFT) shows a confused mass of undefinable tissue blocking the opening to the ovary. This is consistent in many examples examined at the site but not consistent with other images available of mature Green- flowered Helleborine flowers. Perhaps the difference observed between the two species is a reflection of the two plants different fertilising preferences as it may be a seed mass developing following early fertilisation while the flower was still closed? Also the shape and colour of the epichile are different, being pointed and very yellow in the Green-flowered Helleborine. This is another characteristic cited by botanists. However, perhaps the most significant identifier remains the ‘style’ of the plant. It is very green, more graceful, and a rather stylish plant when seen as a strong leafy healthy specimen. If it is marginalised it is simply small, weedy and very green!
KINGDOM Plantae Angiosperms* Monocots ^ Asparagales Orchidaceae †  CephalantheraDactylorhizaEpipactisHammarbyaOrchisSpiranthes -------etc. C. longifolia E. palustris E. helleborine E. phyllanthes E. atrorubens Plant Groups studied in this Article 5 species from 2 genera * Flowering plants ^ Monocots have one seed leaf and parallel veins, includes Grasses and Orchids. † Orchid family in alphabetical order listing only locally important genera.

Mature Flowers.

Green-flowered Helleborine on LEFT, Borad-leaved on RIGHT. There seems to be a consistent difference in the detail and shape of the labellum in these two species. This is much harder to see in the Green- flowered due to the pendulous nature of its flowers and the ‘untidy’ appearance of its hypochile (the inner part of the labellum). In the Green-flowered, the epichile (outer part) is pointed and yellowish. The Broad-leaved Helleborine has a more rounded tip and the colour is creamy to pinkish with variations. It is important to note that the site investigated for Green-flowered Helleborines was a relatively small section of beech wood lining a small river. The plants had not been recorded there before 2016 and there were over 400 specimens in a restricted area. All plants photographed or recorded (i.e. mapped) were very consistent in appearance. They all grew tall where conditions suited, they all were intensely green and glabrous, and the open flowers, where seen, were similar to the ones shown here.

We save the best to last…

This is the Narrow-leaved Helleborine and it is one of Ireland’s scarcest and most stunning wild plants. It is, of course, a member of the genus Cephalanthera but it shares its common name of helleborine with the four Epipactis plants described above. These two genuses are both members of the Orchidaceae family and share some common ‘orchid’ characteristics. The difference lies in the largely closed flowers (containing lips but without a typical orchid spur) of the Cephalanthera, and the more open flowers of Epipactis with a broad labellum.
Narrow-leaved Helleborine, Cephalanthera longifolia We hope these photographs do this plant justice. They are both taken in Co. Galway, the large one recently and the smaller one in 2013. Early May is the best time to view this species. Typically a woodland species it is found in an old estate which was (unfortunately) replanted with conifers. However, some of the beechwood remains and other areas are being returned to a natural broad leaf woodland. So there is hope for these plants but they are becoming exceedingly rare throughout Ireland as a result of woodland replacement and rapid land improvement. These specimens occur beside a busy road and the recent photograph shows some dirt from lorries and cars passing close by. However the wet muddy tracks at the edge of the road provide an exposed wet area in which seeds readily germinate. No plants were found elsewhere this year! Also, it allows light in which seems important to this species even in its undisturbed woodland glade? These are graceful flowers with pure white perianth and a small orange spot on the labellum. We hope they can survive and they do need recording.
That completes our introduction to Irish Helleborines. We will come back and add to these pictures, all being well. They are a beautiful group of plants, some protected, others warranting protection. So keep your Beech woods safe, leave space on a farm for wild unfertilised areas, and set aside some limestone areas at field margins. Where the soil is too thin for grass, orchids will grow well! HOME
BELOW: Distended ovaries presumably following fertilisation. Note slight colour variation probably due to light.